First, a gathering of influential co-operators in Swindon gave the proposals a definite thumbs down, with less than a sixth of the delegates present when the vote was taken agreeing that the Co-op Movement should embrace the Big Society agenda.
Then Liverpool City Council, a key partner in one of the Government’s Big Society inner city showcase areas, said it was withdrawing its support because the need to make £141 million worth of cuts in the next two years had put the future of hundreds of voluntary groups on Merseyside in jeopardy.
And, last week, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, Executive Director of the Community Service Volunteers organisation and known as ‘the mother of the Big Society’, warned that Government spending cuts are destroying the voluntary sector in the UK.
The vote at the Co-operatives Futures’ annual weekend conference surprised organiser Jim Pettipher who told the News: “I really thought that delegates would say: ‘Of course we’re in; the people we help need us to be in — it’s just a question of terms’.”
Altogether, 30 delegates decided to abstain, saying they did not want to embrace the Big Society, but could not ignore the impact of the cuts either. Twenty-four people said the Movement should opt out of the initiative and only nine declared co-ops should be ‘in’.
Keynote speaker Russell Gill, Head of Membership at the Co-operative Group, told the conference that the Group was already involved in issues like health, education, housing and energy provision and declared: “Not engaging is not an option.”
But he admitted: “We also have to protect our brand. Organisations are springing up and taking an interest in the Big Society. They use our language, but are shadows of what we are about. John Lewis is advising on Big Society projects; Asda and Cadbury have signed up as network partners and Sainsbury’s is pledging support.”
The conference acknowledged that the Government was talking about co-operatives in a positive way and Dave Boyle, Chief Executive of Supporters Direct, told delegates: “As a Movement, we've been talking about organising for collective needs for 200 years. Now we have a government which says ‘we like that too’.”
Vivian Woodell, of Midcounties Co-operative, agreed. “We've always been ‘in’,” he said, “and government is catching up. Some people genuinely want to reinvigorate civic society and we should not be putting two fingers up to them. We need to be pragmatic, and clear about where our boundaries are.”
Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods urged early engagement with government. “We were too slow over the issue of social enterprises and other people pushed in and set the agenda. The social enterprise movement developed without any input from the Co-operative Movement.” And James Shaddock of Community Empowerment Ltd, said: “Let's put our cynicism aside. We should jump in head first.”
But many delegates feared a public backlash if the Co-op Movement became too closely aligned to a Government policy of shrinking the public sector.
Sion Whellens, of workers’ co-op Calverts, described the Big Society as an “ideological puffball” and accused the Government of stealing the Movement’s language.
“They are using words and phrases like 'equality' and 'empowering communities'. The Government talks about a Big Society, but what it means is a smaller state. I don't even want to be talking about a Big Society — that's their agenda, not ours.”
Ultimately, said Mr Pettipher, the Big Society is a bandwagon on which co-operators feel no desire to jump.
“The message from delegates is that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by any Government or any Government agenda. Promoting and developing co-operation remains the agenda that our delegates wish to pursue.”